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Venezuela's War of Religion

In a move that is surely bound to alienate the United States yet further, Chavez decided to expel an American missionary group, the New Tribes Mission. What was merely a war of words has seemingly escalated into a religious battle. Or has it? What is truly behind Chavez's decision to expel New Tribes and where is the conflict likely to lead?


Reportedly, hyperactive Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez has cut down on his espresso intake, from a full 26 cups a day to 16.  Judging from his actions, however, you'd never know that "Hurricane Hugo" has slowed down.  In a move that is surely bound to alienate the United States yet further, Chavez decided to expel an American missionary group, the New Tribes Mission, on October 12th.  In an inflammatory speech, Chavez proclaimed that New Tribes constituted a "true imperialist invasion" and was working with the CIA.  Remarking that he didn't "give a damn," what people thought about his decision in Venezuela or "other imperialist countries," Chavez said the missionary group would shortly have to abandon its jungle bases.  The decision comes in the wake of a long and simmering war of words between Chavez and Reverend Pat Robertson, who called for the Venezuelan president's assassination on his TV Show "The 700 Club" back in August.  In response, Chavez blasted Robertson as "a terrorist," and said his government was interested in pursuing extradition of the U.S. minister.  Now, however, what was merely a war of words has seemingly escalated into a religious battle.  Or has it?  What is truly behind Chavez's decision to expel New Tribes and where is the conflict likely to lead?


New Tribes: A State Within A State?


Though Chavez's move was certainly dramatic, it is not as if the issue of New Tribes is a novel one in Venezuela.  For years, accusations have swirled that the evangelical outfit was involved in espionage and committed ethnocide while carrying out its missionary work amongst indigenous peoples.  However, the missionaries were able to count on high-level support from the corrupt two party system, the Venezuelan Evangelical Council, as well as the U.S. Embassy in Caracas.  Though Congress and the military launched separate investigations, high-level action was never taken.  In August 1981, José Vicente Rangel, then a deputy in Congress, requested that the investigation into New Tribes be reopened.  Rangel, a long time fixture of Venezuelan politics, had unsuccessfully run for president twice on the MAS (Movement Towards Socialism) ticket, in 1973 and 1978.  An aggressive opponent of U.S.-backed military regimes in Venezuela, Rangel was particularly incensed by the case of New Tribes.  Though the Ministry of Justice and Interior Relations ultimately heeded Rangel's calls and carried out another investigation, the results were never made public.  Despite the investigations and media attention, no missionary was ever put in jail (for a more complete accounting of New Tribes and their long and tangled history in Venezuela, see my report for the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, "Evangelical Protestants in Venezuela: Robertson Only The Latest Controversy in a Long and Bizarre History").


Initially, Chavez is Partial to New Tribes


The tide however was beginning to turn.  In 1999, after Hugo Chávez was elected president, he named Rangel as Minister of External Relations. The veteran politician went on to serve as Minister of Defense under Chávez and later as his vice president.  Increasingly, New Tribes was becoming more vulnerable and isolated in Venezuela.  Formerly, the missionaries could count on the support of many members of the traditional two party system.  But those parties, by the time of Chavez's rise to prominence, had fallen into disgrace.  What is more, while New Tribes had earlier lobbied the U.S. Embassy in Caracas to protect its interests, American diplomats now had little sway over Chavez.  Indeed, by April 2002 relations had sunk to a new low, with Chavez accusing the CIA of having helped to force his ouster in an attempted coup d'état.


On the other hand, until the controversy with Pat Robertson erupted in August, Chavez's relations with evangelical groups had been smooth.  In fact, Chávez was initially somewhat partial to Protestants and evangelical groups.  Before Chávez came to power in 1999, Christian radio and TV were outlawed, a policy reversed by Chávez.  Even Robertson was allowed to broadcast his show 700 Club to Venezuela over TV station Televen.  Though Venezuelan officials declared that they had grown suspicious of U.S. evangelical organizations before Pat Robertson's remarks, the record suggests that the government did not view New Tribes as a threat.  Indeed, the missionary group was allowed to continue its work in Venezuela, with over 160 missionaries operating within the country.  New Tribes worked with 12 indigenous groups in Amazonas and several other states.  According to Venezuelan officials, the missionaries had 29 landing strips within the country.


Robertson's Fatwa Results in New Tribes Expulsion


The situation shifted drastically however when Pat Robertson put out his fatwa on Chavez's head.  Robertson, a former presidential candidate in 1988, said that the U.S. government should kill Chavez to protect American petroleum interests and because the Venezuelan president "has destroyed the Venezuelan economy, and he's going to make that a launching pad for communist infiltration and Muslim extremism all over the continent."  Though Robertson later apologized, the Venezuelan government was alarmed and suspended missionary visas.  Shortly after, Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel, a politician who has had a long and combative history dealing with U.S. evangelical groups, remarked that Venezuela was weighing court action against Robertson.  The indefatigable Robertson, forgetting about his earlier apology, continued his tirade.  Appearing on CNN he remarked that Chavez was "negotiating with the Iranians to get nuclear material.  And he also sent $1.2 million in cash to Osama bin Laden right after 9/11."  The preacher offered no evidence to support his startling accusations.  Venezuelan officials dismissed Robertson's remarks as totally false and "crazy."


Robertson's attack alarmed David Zelenak, Director of the Resource Department for New Tribes.  Speaking to me over the phone, Zelenak remarked that Robertson's strong words "did not help us in Venezuela."  The missionary added that other missionary groups were concerned about Robertson's comments and worried that the war of words might escalate.  New Tribes later condemned Robertson's statements on its website, but such efforts would not save the missionary group.  According to New Tribes, Venezuelan officials stepped up investigations of its activities in the wake of the controversy.  Retired general Alberto Müller Rojas, a military advisor to the Chavez government and former governor of Amazonas state, was not surprised by the increased pressure on New Tribes.  Within the missionary organization, he commented, "there are distinct [religious] denominations, principally those Protestant groups of the Baptist tendency which Pat Robertson belongs to."  According to Muller, Robertson and New Tribes were "tightly linked."  New Tribes and Robertson, he continued, were part of the same Protestant movement that so strongly supported President George Bush.


As it turns out, Zelenak's fears were not unfounded.  Amidst the escalating war of words between the Venezuelans and Robertson, Chavez expelled the Florida based New Tribes altogether.  The president announced that he would sign the official expulsion order as soon as he had received a definitive report from the Ministry of Interior, and that the decision was "irreversible."  In a further barb, he added "We don't want the New Tribes here.  Enough colonialism!  500 years is enough!"  Chavez said he had become aware of New Tribes' espionage through his own military intelligence, though officials have offered no concrete proof of the allegations.  Chavez confided that he had seen an "incredible" report and video concerning the matter.  The Venezuelan president did not set a fixed date for the expulsion.  However, he did say it would occur in an orderly fashion and that the missionaries would be allowed sufficient time to "gather their stuff."  Recently, Venezuelan military officials remarked that they were studying how to remove New Tribes' missionary bases.  However, according to New Tribes the Venezuelan military has already swung into action, occupying some of its facilities in areas inhabited by the Pume tribe.  The governor of Amazonas state, Liborio Guarulla, has sought to comply with the expulsion order.  Within Amazonas, Guarulla will request the withdrawal of missionaries operating in the Upper Orinoco, home to Yekuana and Yanomami Indians.  Guarulla added that he will comply with the law without resorting to force. 


New Tribes Responds


For its own part New Tribes offered a measured response on its website, remarking "We would welcome any opportunity to address the President's concerns and help him better understand our organization and the work of New Tribes Mission in Venezuela."  The missionary organization added, "We hope that President Chavez will reconsider his decision and allow us an opportunity to clarify misunderstandings and misinformation that exists regarding the work of New Tribes Mission in Venezuela.  New Tribes Mission is not and has never been connected in any way with any government agencies.  Our goal is to serve indigenous people." 


Meanwhile, New Tribes representatives took to Venezuelan TV and radio airwaves to present their point of view.  Additionally, the missionaries have declared that they will take their case to the country's Supreme Court of Justice.  A lawyer for New Tribes implied that Chavez was being dishonest and had no video or military report about missionary activities.  New Tribes has also appealed to the Venezuelan Evangelical Council for support.


The question remains though: why did Chavez decide to make this decision now?  It's not as if the charges against New Tribes are anything new.  On a certain level, it would seem that Chavez has simply been opportunistic.  Robertson's inflammatory comments made Chavez look like a persecuted martyr and allowed the Venezuelan president to place the issue of Protestant missionaries front and center.  In fact, Chavez may have calculated that he had nothing to lose and everything to gain by expelling the missionaries. 


Playing on Wounded Pride


The case allows the regime to play on nationalist sentiment.  Take for example the reaction of Jose Vicente Rangel, who has been gunning for New Tribes for twenty-five years.  Speaking with the press, Rangel remarked that the government's decision was designed to restore national sovereignty.  That kind of remark plays well in Venezuela, a small country that was pushed around by the European powers in the 19th century and the United States in the last century.  Playing to Venezuelans' sense of wounded pride, Chavez said that New Tribes had set up a state within a state, made unauthorized flights, and set up luxurious settlements in the midst of poverty.  "These violations of our national sovereignty have to stop," he thundered. 


Moving Ahead on Indigenous Policy


Chavez announced the expulsion order while handing over indigenous land titles, boat motors, vehicles and credits in the village of Barranco Yopal.  The settlement is located 500 kilometers south of Caracas within the remote plains state of Apure.  Chavez too is from the plains region and was born in the neighboring state of Barinas.  The president has never sought to distance himself from his ethnic heritage. "My Indian roots are from my father's side," he remarked. "He [my father] is mixed Indian and black, which makes me very proud."  What is more, Chávez has boasted of his grandmother, who he says was a Pumé Indian.


For the president, Barranco Yopal carries personal meaning.  In his youth, Chavez used to visit the town.  In an interview with Marta Harnecker, he explained, "I used to go to Barranco Yopal and bring cans and sticks to the Indians, because they made houses with those materials to spend the winter season there, but in the summer they used to go away.  They were nomads: hunters and gatherers, as they were 500 years ago.  I saw Indian women giving birth there…The majority of those babies died of malaria, tuberculosis, of any type of illness.  They [the Indians] used to spend the time drunk in town.  The Indian women used to prostitute themselves, many times they were raped.  They were ghosts, disrespected by the majority of the population.  They used to steal to eat.  They didn't have any conception of private property: for them it wasn't robbery to go into an area and grab a pig to eat it if they were hungry."


The announcement of New Tribes' expulsion was timed perfectly to coincide with Columbus Day, which Chavez has renamed Indigenous Resistance Day.  Alexander Luzardo, a sociologist and longtime New Tribes critic, remarked that Chavez's decision "complies with what is stipulated in the constitution of 1999, which establishes indigenous peoples' right to self-determination and to respect for their beliefs, values and customs."  Indeed, helping the nation's 300,000 indigenous peoples has been a great priority for Hugo Chavez.  Article 9 of the new constitution states that while Spanish is the official language of Venezuela, "Indigenous languages are also for official use for Indigenous peoples and must be respected throughout the Republic's territory for being part of the nation's and humanity's patrimonial culture." In chapter eight of the constitution, the state recognizes the social, political, and economic organization within indigenous communities, in addition to their cultures, languages, rights, and lands. What is more, in a critical provision the government recognizes land rights as collective, inalienable, and non-transferable.  Later articles declare the government's pledge not to engage in extraction of natural resources without prior consultation with indigenous groups. Three long time indigenous activists have been elected to the Venezuelan National Assembly, and prominent leaders hold positions in government.  In a novel move, Chávez has even had the constitution translated into all of Venezuela's languages.


While Chavez was in Barranco Yopal, he distributed 1.65 million acres to indigenous communities in the states of Apure, Anzoategui, Delta Amacuro, and Sucre.  The move forms part of the so-called Mission Guaicaipuro, which shall provide land titles to all of Venezuela's 28 indigenous peoples.  By the end of 2006, Chávez' Mission Guaicaipuro plans to award land titles to 15 more indigenous groups.  In Barranco Yopal, Chavez granted titles recognizing collective ownership of ancestral lands to the Cuiba, Yuaruro, Warao and Karina tribes.  It was in fact the second such land transfer, the first having been decreed in August.  Chavez awarded those communal lands during the 16th World Festival of Students and Youth in Caracas.  At the ceremony, Chavez handed out 313,824 acres to six Kariña indigenous communities living in the states of Monagas and Anzoategui.


Some Indians at Barranco Yopal felt that the government still needed to provide more assistance.  "We want the government to help us with hunger, with credit," remarked Pedro Mendez, a Yuaruro Indian.  He related that his community had requested an electrical generator and loans to help plant more crops.  On the other hand, some Indians clearly applaud the government's moves.  Present during Chavez's ceremony in Barranco Yopal was Librado Moraleda, a 52-year-old Warao Indian from a remote village in the Orinoco River Delta. "Previously," he declared, "the indigenous people of Venezuela were removed from our lands. This is historic. It is a joyful day."  Moraleda received a land title and government pledge of $27,000 to construct homes as well as plant cassava and plantains.


Attacking Protestants, Appeasing Catholics


By expelling New Tribes, Chavez also appeases prominent Catholics.  For years, church leaders have been a thorn in Chavez's side.  During the April 2002 coup, prominent Catholics such as Cardinal Ignacio Velasco sided with the opposition against Chavez.  Velasco even offered his residence as a meeting place for the coup plotters.  What is more, he, as well as top Catholic leaders and members of Opus Dei later signed a decree that swept away Venezuela's democratic institutions.  Senior Catholic bishops also attended the inauguration ceremony for Pedro Carmona, Venezuela's Dictator-For-a-Day.  Chavez has shot back against the church hierarchy, saying that the Church is a "tumor."  In a further jibe, he stated that "there are bishops from the Catholic Church who knew a coup was on the way, and they used church installations to bring coup plotters together ... those clerics are immoral and spokesmen for the opposition."


Chief amongst the president's critics on the right has been Monsignor Baltazar Porras, who has backed efforts to recall Chavez as president and helped draft anti-Chavez statements by the Venezuelan Catholic Church Episcopal Conference.  Another leading figure leading the charge has been Cardinal Rosalio Castillo Lara, who has called Chavez "a paranoid dictator" in need of an exorcism.  He has accused Chavez of encouraging "Cubanization" of the country and receiving direct orders from Cuban leader Fidel Castro. "Venezuela," he continued, "is the richest country in Latin America, but the impression that I have is that Chavez wants to end this…He wants, like Castro, to eliminate social distinctions so that we are all poor."  Chavez has shot back, calling Castillo Lara an "outlaw, bandit, immoral Pharisee, and a pantomime."

While Chavez's recent move expelling New Tribes is unlikely to totally appease these Catholic leaders, it may buy him a slight respite.  The Catholic Church has long viewed the growing Protestant presence in Latin America with concern; in Venezuela Catholics joined anthropologists and others who criticized New Tribes as far back as the 1970s.  Even some of Chavez's arch enemies such as Castillo Lara hailed the government's decision.  "We have the blessing of the Cardinal in this decision," Rangel announced proudly. 


And meanwhile, what of Protestants?  Though the Evangelical Council of Venezuela has defended New Tribes, Chavez has little to fear.  Protestants only number 2% of the population and have historically constituted a loyal working class Chavez constituency.  What is more, according to Samuel Olson, president of the Evangelical Council of Venezuela, Protestants have not bought into anti-Chavez propaganda.  Olson says that Protestants didn't give much credence to Pat Robertson and viewed the minister as "goofy." 


The Fall Out For U.S.-Venezuelan Relations


Speaking with the Venezuelan newspaper El Universal, U.S. ambassador William Brownfield noted that he would seek to facilitate negotiations between New Tribes and the Venezuelan government.  Brownfield categorically denied any link between the CIA and New Tribes.  The Department of State is apparently following the matter with concern, and holds out hope that the missionaries may be yet be allowed to stay as the Venezuelan government has not given any official expulsion order. 


What does this incident portend for the future of U.S.-Venezuelan relations?  Though Chavez's moves have proven destabilizing, the issue of New Tribes on its own is unlikely to produce an irrevocable breach.  On the other hand, the cumulative effect of Chavez's actions seems to be moving the two countries towards greater and greater confrontation.  In August, Chavez suspended cooperation with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency; the president said DEA agents were spying.  And just this month, Chavez sold off Venezuela's foreign currency reserves, held in U.S. treasury bonds, and deposited them in European banks.  "We have had to withdraw our international reserves from U.S. banks, due to the threats we have," Chavez remarked. 


These are only two incidents but they demonstrate the extent to which relations have soured in recent days.  Chavez might calculate that President Bush and the Republican party are too distracted with their own internal scandals and the mess in Iraq to focus much attention on Venezuela.  It's also true that the Venezuelan opposition is fractured and as a result the United States has precious little leverage in the country.  As Bush's popularity plummets, Chavez becomes more and more emboldened.  For the time being, he seems to be politically secure, but he is surely playing a dangerous game.

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A Real Racial Democracy? Hugo Chávez and the Politics of Race

While Chávez's strategy of appealing to racial minorities in the U.S. is certainly bold, it is hardly surprising given his and Venezuela's history. Chávez support for Venezuela's indigenous and afro-Venezuelan population has inspired not only oppressed minorities within his own country but also blacks living outside Venezuela.


As the war of words heats up between the Bush White House and Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, the firebrand South American leader has boldly sought to forge ties with poor communities of color in the United States. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Chávez provided relief assistance to the poverty stricken and largely African American victims of the disaster. The head of Citgo, the U.S. subsidiary of Venezuela's state owned oil company, set up disaster relief centers in Louisiana and Texas in the wake of the hurricane and provided humanitarian to thousands of victims. Volunteers based at Citgo refineries in Lake Charles, Louisiana and Corpus Christi, Texas, provided medical care, food and water to approximately 5,000 people. In Houston, volunteers from Citgo headquarters provided similar assistance to 40,000 victims. What is more, Venezuela has provided hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil in energy assistance to the United States. Chávez followed up his bold initiative by announcing that he would soon begin to ship heating and diesel oil at rock bottom prices to schools, nursing homes, hospitals and poor communities within the U.S. The Venezuelan president has also offered to provide free eye surgery for poor Americans suffering from certain eye conditions. The firebrand South American leader, who proclaimed the plan during a recent visit to New York, will begin his oil program through an October pilot project in Chicago. There, the Venezuelan government will target poor Mexican Americans for assistance.


In November, Chávez intends to expand the program to the South Bronx and Boston. Chávez has even offered to ship low cost gasoline to Native American tribal communities in the United States. "There is a lot of poverty in the U.S. and I don't believe that reflects the American Way of Life. Many people die of cold in the winter. Many die of heat in the summer," Chávez recently remarked during his weekly TV show. "We could have an impact on seven to eight million persons," he added. During his time in New York, Chávez toured the largely African American and Latino populated Bronx and was treated like a veritable rock star. Democratic Congress member Jose Serrano, who invited the Venezuelan president to the Bronx, remarked, "Chávez went to the poorest congressional district in the nation's richest city, and people on the street there just went crazy. A lot of people told me they were really mesmerized by him. He made quite an impression." Chávez's trip is reminiscent of similar moves by Cuban leader Fidel Castro, a figure who Chávez frankly admires. In a celebrated trip in 1960, Castro stayed at a cheap hotel in Harlem where he met with important political figures of the day such as Malcolm X.


Chávez's moves are sure to play well in the inner city. In light of the high price of oil this year, which has reached $70 a barrel, it is expected that the price of heating oil will skyrocket and become unaffordable to many poor people of color. By providing cheap oil to marginalized communities fed up with price gouging, Chávez shrewdly overshadows George Bush. The U.S. president, along with the Republican party, have long ignored the social needs of America's inner cities as evidenced by the botched hurricane relief operation in New Orleans. Unlike the U.S. government, which was hobbled by Hurricane Katrina and which had to redirect much of the winter's energy assistance program to hurricane victims, Chávez is ideally positioned to help poor communities of color. Venezuela owns 14,000 gas stations and eight refineries in the United States through Citgo, none of whose oil infrastructure was damaged by Hurricane Katrina. Chávez has stated he will reserve 10% of the 800,000 barrels of Citgo oil and ship the petroleum directly to poor communities. Unnamed Venezuelan officials claimed that their country would not lose money through the deal, as the idea was to "cut the middle man" out of the deal. Rafael Ramirez, Venezuela's Minister of Energy and Petroleum, says the move will relieve urban suffering as beneficiaries could see price reductions of up to 30%. Chávez's moves are sure to play well in the Bronx, but unlikely to be received with any sign of gratitude in Washington. "Cutting oil prices must seem like the worst sort of radicalism to the Big Oil companies and their buddies at the Bush-Cheney White House," writes Juan Gonzalez of the New York Daily News.


Forging Ties With Communities of Color: Chávez's Political Imperative


Chávez's moves seem to form part of a larger, long term strategy of building alliances with racial minorities such as African Americans. By aiding the poor, Chávez will certainly do much to reverse the negative media onslaught that has taken its cue from the White House and which has sought to portray him as "totalitarian" and a threat to this country (see for example my earlier Counterpunch piece, "Fair and Balanced or US Govt. Propaganda? Fox News vs. Hugo Chávez," April 30-May 1, 2005). Julia Buxton, a scholar at Bradford University who has written extensively on Venezuela, remarked that Chávez's gambit reflects ideological as well as pragmatic considerations. "He's been deeply, deeply frustrated by coverage in the U.S. media and the attitude of the U.S. government, and he's trying to counter a very Republican-directed vendetta," she said. That vendetta has included, most recently, calls by U.S. evangelist Pat Robertson for Chávez's assassination (see my earlier article, "Demeaner of the Faith, Rev. Pat Robertson and Gen. Rios Montt," September 17-18, 2005). "He clearly needed to build constructive alliances with more liberal sections of American society," Buxton added, "and open a way to insulate himself against his Washington enemies."


For Chávez, the task of recruiting domestic support within the United States has become a political imperative. The Venezuelan president has fallen afoul of the White House for his criticism of the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. supported drug war in the Andean region, and the U.S. sponsored Free Trade Agreement of the Americas. What is more, Chávez has increased royalty taxes on U.S. oil companies doing business in Venezuela, and even shipped petroleum to the island nation of Cuba in exchange for Cuban medical assistance. With the added oil money Chávez has funded ambitious social programs in health and education. The Bush White House chose to confront Chávez: in April 2002 the U.S. government provided taxpayer funds to the Venezuelan opposition through the National Endowment For Democracy. Bush and the neo-conservatives nearly succeeded in removing Chávez from power when the opposition staged a short-lived coup d'etat. Since then however, Chávez has consolidated his position and emerged as the most charismatic leader in South America. Chávez's calls for greater regional unity, including the formation of Petrosur, a South American oil company, and Telesur, a South American satellite TV station, have further enraged the Bush White House. Not surprisingly, the U.S. has forged ahead in seeking to isolate Chávez, as evidenced by the recent strong statements coming from the likes of National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. In a meeting with the New York Times editorial board, Rice remarked that oil was "warping" international politics and "It [oil] gives certain power and leverage to certain countries and not to others. We're experiencing it with Venezuela, for instance, where the oil profits are being put to use across the region to, you know, push forward Chávez's particular view of the world." Chávez has struck back by threatening to cut off oil shipments to the United States if he is assassinated. Venezuela is the United States' fourth largest oil supplier currently accounting for 12% of imports. As such, a cut off of oil supplies could exert a significant impact on the U.S. energy supply (see my earlier Counterpunch column: "Chávez's Gambit 'Oil is a Geopolitical Weapon;" April 6, 2005). Chávez's recent oil for the poor idea, closely following on the heels of the hostile war of words, will most certainly fan the flames yet further and lead the Bush White House to continue its bellicose strategy in Venezuela.


"I was a farm kid from the plains of South Venezuela"


While Chávez's strategy of appealing to racial minorities is certainly bold, it is hardly surprising given the history. Chávez himself was born in the Venezuelan plain or llano, and has a provincial accent. A forbidding area with a harsh tropical climate, the area has had a long history of racial conflict going back centuries. During the Spanish colonial period, rebellious black slaves managed to escape from plantations and haciendas, fled to the llano and became a problem for the authorities. Slaves started to live in cumbes or escaped communities where collective forms of work were practiced. The blacks mixed with the Indian population and carried out daring raids on cattle ranches. The whites grew alarmed by inter-racial mixing: escaped slaves, they feared, might have a radicalizing effect on the Indian population. Accordingly, in 1785 the authorities drafted laws prohibiting blacks from living with Indians "because they only corrupt them with the bad customs which they generally acquire in their breedingand they sow discord among the same Indians."


Physically, Hugo Chávez is a pardo, a term used in the colonial period to denote someone of mixed racial roots. "Chávez's features," writes a magazine columnist, "are a dark-copper color and as thick as clay; he has protruding, sensuous lips and deep-set eyes under a heavy brow. His hair is black and kinky. He is a burly man of medium height, with a long, hatchet-shaped nose and a massive chin and jaw." In an interview, Chávez remarked that when he first applied to the military academy he had an Afro. From an ethno-racial standpoint, Chávez is similar to many of his fellow Venezuelans. Indeed, today 67 per cent of the population is mestizo, 10 per cent black and 23 per cent white. Chávez himself has not sought to distance himself from his ethnic heritage. "My Indian roots are from my father's side," he remarked. "He [my father] is mixed Indian and black, which makes me very proud." What is more, Chávez has boasted of his grandmother, who he says was a Pumé Indian. Like many other Venezuelans of mixed race, Chávez grew up in poverty. One of six children, Chávez was born in extremely humbling conditions in the llano. "I was a farm kid from the plains of South Venezuela," he remarked to Ted Koppel on ABC's Nightline. "I grew up in a palm tree house with an earthen floor," he added. Chávez entered the military, which historically has been one of the few paths towards social advancement for men of mixed race. While on duty with the military he toured the country and became aware of economic exploitation and racial discrimination.


Venezuela: A "Racial Democracy"?


Unlike the United States, Venezuela has not experienced poisonous anti black racism. But the idea of racial democracy does not stand up under scrutiny: the caste like divisions of the colonial period are still latent in society. "Venezuelan elites," one scholar has remarked, "judged people by their appearances. Accordingly, individuals with 'anxious hair' or 'hair like springs' lived in the shadow of their black slave ancestors. The elites considered respectable the whiter Venezuelans who had 'hair flat as rainwater, of an indefinite light brown color which is neither fair nor dark.'" Though some blacks were able to enter white society through marriage and miscegenation, "in the long run, such individuals provided the exceptions that proved the rule." Blacks who sought social acceptance had to adopt the clothing, education, and language of the white elite. In present day Venezuelan society, notes respected commentator Gregory Wilpert, "The correspondence between skin color and class membership is quite stunning at times. To confirm this observation, all one has to do is compare middle to upper class neighborhoods, where predominantly lighter colored folks live, with the barrios, which are clearly predominantly inhabited by darker skinned Venezuelans." Meanwhile, journalist Greg Palast noted that rich whites had "command of the oil wealth, the best jobs, the English-language lessons, the imported clothes, the vacations in Miami, the plantations."


Chávez and Indigenous Peoples


In 1998 while campaigning for president, Chávez made a commitment to champion the rights of Venezuela's half-million indigenous peoples. After he was elected, Chávez put the issue of indigenous rights front and center by addressing it on his weekly call-in program, Aló Presidente. But actions speak greater than words, and Chávez made good on his promises by working to codify the rights of indigenous people in the new 1999 constitution. Article 9 proclaims that while Spanish is the official language of Venezuela, "Indigenous languages are also for official use for Indigenous peoples and must be respected throughout the Republic's territory for being part of the nation's and humanity's patrimonial culture." In chapter eight of the constitution, the state recognizes the social, political, and economic organization within indigenous communities, in addition to their cultures, languages, rights, and lands. What is more, in a critical provision the government recognizes land rights as collective, inalienable, and non-transferable. Later articles declare the government's pledge not to engage in extraction of natural resources without prior consultation with indigenous groups. Three long time indigenous activists have been elected to the Venezuelan National Assembly, and prominent leaders hold positions in government. In a novel move, Chávez has even had the constitution translated into all of Venezuela's languages.


Chávez has lived up to the constitution by awarding communal land titles to six Kariña indigenous communities. The land titles will be handed out to 4,000 people and encompass 317,000 acres in the Venezuelan states of Monagas and Anzoategui. The land transfers form part of Mission Guaicaipuro, a plan to provide land titles to all of Venezuela's 28 indigenous peoples. Chávez awarded the communal titles to the Kariña in August during the 16th World Festival of Students and Youth. The conference, which was attended by 40,000 people, was held in Caracas. During the opening procession of nations Chávez gave a "thumbs up" to a banner which displayed the words "Leonard Peltier." An indigenous woman speaker at the conference, one of three indigenous representatives in the Venezuela Assembly, praised recent advances for indigenous people. One conference participant reported, "Chávez hugged all the indigenous leaders in front of the world and gave deeds of territory to the tribes." By the end of 2006, Chávez' Mission Guaicaipuro plans to award land titles to 15 more indigenous groups. Participants at the conference were also pleased by Chávez's moves to halt the celebration of Columbus Day, which he has replaced with "Indigenous Resistance Day."


Chávez and Afro-Venezuelans


On the other hand, while the new constitution recognizes indigenous rights, it mentions nothing about blacks in Venezuela, leading Bill Fletcher of the Washington-based TransAfrica Forum to comment, "I feel that black issues need to be injected into politics." On the other hand, there are signs that Chávez government is at least aware of the problem. From March to May 2004, Afro Venezuelan groups celebrated the 150th anniversary of the end of slavery in Caracas. At the end of the conference Chávez made an appearance and the audience heard a lecture from Afro-Venezuelan historian José Marcial Ramos Guedez. Some participants expressed optimism that racial progress would be made under the Chávez government.


"Representatives of Venezuela's Afro-descendants are so positive about the current reforms in government [under Chávez]," said Máryori Márquez, assistant to the director of culture in the city of Sucre, "that we are now also trying to have legislation drafted that will mandate the acceptance and the recognition of the traditional and current human rights of Black Venezuelans." Máryori added that Chávez was "completely open to this initiative, we just have to work to make this come true, we have to develop this. Because this won't just benefit a few people, it would be to everyone's benefit."


The White Elite Strikes Back


The white elite has not been amused by Chávez's recent moves. For them, the new president was an outsider. In contrast to previous leaders in Venezuela and throughout the region who identified with the outside European world, Chávez loudly proclaimed his indigenous and African roots. Chávez himself seems well aware of the race issue. According to the Venezuelan president, racial tensions have increased since his election. "There is racism here," Chávez remarked. "It used to be more hidden and now it is more open." Chávez's opponents, who argue that racism does not exist in the country, charged that the president exploits the race card for political gain. According to Fletcher, the Chávez opposition "has attacked him [Chávez] using racist language and imagery which would be totally unacceptable in public discourse in the USA." The Venezuelan elite has used racial slurs to taint Chávez, denouncing him as a black monkey. According to author Tariq Ali, "A puppet show to this effect with a monkey playing Chávez was even organized at the U.S. Embassy in Caracas. But Colin Powell was not amused and the Ambassador was compelled to issue an apology." The attacks continued when Venezuelan media commentators referred to the Minister of Education, Aristobulo Isturiz, who is black, as "a monkey" and "an ape." Meanwhile, analysts have remarked upon the racial undertones of political conflict in Chávez's Venezuela. "Class and skin color differences," remarks Wilpert, "clearly correlate very highly at demonstrations, such that the darker skinned (and presumably lower class) support the Chávez government and the lighter skinned (and presumably middle and upper class) oppose the Chávez government."


Race and the Venezuelan Media


This difference in skin color was clearly evident during the demonstrations both for and against Chávez in the days preceding the April 2002 coup, and during an oil lockout in December 2002-January 2003. What is more, the Venezuelan TV media, which is dominated by whites or light skinned individuals, and which relegates blacks or dark skinned people to play roles as criminals or servants in soap operas, played a significant role in the April 2002 coup. In the days leading up to Chávez's ouster, Venevisión, RCTV, Globovisión and Televen substituted their regular programming with non-stop vitriolic anti-Chávez propaganda, which some of their staff later acknowledged as unprofessional behavior. This relentless barrage was interrupted by commercials urging TV viewers to go into the streets. Inflammatory ads blaring, "Not one step backward. Out! Leave now!" were carried by the stations as public service announcements. Later on the day of the coup, Gustavo Cisneros allowed his television station Venevision to serve as the meeting place for anti-Chávez coup plotters. Reportedly, interim coup president Pedro Carmona was present.


Chávez has struck back against the established media through Vive TV, a state sponsored station. In contrast to TV stations like RCTV, which airs shows such as "Quien Quiere Ser Millionario" ("Who Wants To Be A Millionaire"), Vive TV shuns American-style consumerism. According to its website, Vive TV promotes "the common citizen, the millions of Venezuelans and Latin Americans who have been made invisible by imperialism and its cultural domination." Through Vive's programming, claim the station's managers, "it is possible to acquaint oneself with the reality, lives and struggle of people of African descent [and] indigenous peoples." As Blanca Eekhout, the former manager of Vive explains, people of color previously "have appeared in the media but in a stigmatized way; they are shown as marginal people, criminals. They are not shown building, constructing, which is part of the struggle for the development of the country. That's one thing we are trying to change." The result of that changed attitude was plain to see during Vive TV's extended coverage of the Social Forum of the Americas in Ecuador. According to Eekhout, Venezuelan Indians attended the event and "The [Venezuelan] indigenous movement was excited; they could see not only movements there, but also their own Venezuelan delegates." Chávez has also increased the visibility of Latin America's indigenous peoples through the launching of the government-sponsored Televisora del Sur (Telesur). The network, which offers news and opinion programming, has hired Ati Kiwa as a presenter, an indigenous Colombian woman who wears traditional dress. The station provides a stark contrast to Univisión celebrity anchor Jorge Ramos, who wears a jacket and tie.


Chávez, Glover, and Martin Luther King


Even as he forges ahead with his media initiatives, the indefatigable Chávez has also moved to increase his political ties with the African American community. In January, 2004 TransAfrica Forum sent a delegation of influential artists, actors, activists and scholars to Caracas to meet with government officials. The group included the likes of screen actor Danny Glover ("Lethal Weapon," "The Color Purple"), who expressed his excitement at the social changes taking place in Venezuela. Glover remarked that the U.S. media's portrayal of Venezuela "has nothing to do with reality." Glover stated that his presence in Venezuela was "to listen and learn, not only from government and opposition politicians, but to share with the people, those who are promoting the changes in this country and we want to be in contact with those who benefit from those changes." Glover and others later presided over the inauguration of a new "Martin Luther King., Jr." school in the coastal town of Naiguata. The area is home to large numbers of Afro-Venezuelans. The school inauguration was the first official Venezuelan recognition of the importance of the slain civil rights leader. What is more, the government launched a photo exposition to honor Dr. King. Speaking at the event, the Venezuelan Ambassador to the United States, Bernardo Alvarez, declared that "The visit by members of the TransAfrica Forum represents a struggle that goes beyond the figure of Martin Luther King; his struggle, his ideas and the African-American social movements inspired by him. This is a struggle aimed at defending people's rights, not only in the United States, but in the hemisphere and the world." Glover, clearly touched by the occasion, commented, ""This isn't Danny Glover the artist. I'm here as a citizen, not only of the US, but a citizen of the world. We understand fully the importance of this historical moment." Chávez later honored the late Dr. King during his radio and TV show Alo Presidente; Glover and others were invited on air to participate.


Predictably, the TransAfrica Forum delegates came under heavy attack from the Venezuelan opposition. "In the Opposition-oriented media, racist language and imagery wereused to characterize, if not caricaturize, our visit," Fletcher remarked. According to him, the delegation received racist e mail, and newspaper editorials and cartoons depicted the delegation in a racist manner. During a press conference, however, TransAfrica participants held their own against the media. James Early, Director of Cultural Studies and Communication at the Center for Folklife Programs and Cultural Studies at the Smithsonian Institution, expressed dismay with Venezuelan journalists. Early said he was surprised that none of the journalist's questions had to do with issues of cultural or racial diversity. "What are you journalists doing to educate the Venezuelan people about racial and cultural diversity? Democracy in the hemisphere relies heavily on the social responsibility of journalists, and asking questions only about the government or the opposition isn't going to help reach that goal. Democracy is not the government or the opposition, it is the people, being the people of Venezuela or the people of the United States," he said. Sitting in the audience was Education and Sports Minister Aristobulo Isturiz, the same black man who had been described by opposition reporters as "a monkey" in the past. Reportedly, Isturiz couldn't hide his satisfaction at the way the delegation handled the combative journalists.


Jackson, Glover, Belafonte: Chávez's New Friends


Chávez has maintained his close relationships with prominent black entertainers in the United States. In July 2005, Danny Glover and singer Harry Belafonte were invited to the ceremonial launching of Chávez's new TV station Telesur. Glover was impressed with the new media initiative, but criticized the station for not having any people of African or indigenous descent on its advisory board. Chávez himself called in to the inauguration shortly after and said to Glover, in English, "Danny, I am with you."


Meanwhile, Chávez has cultivated ties with civil rights leader Jesse Jackson. During a visit to Caracas, the veteran African American activist condemned Pat Robertson's call for Chávez's assassination. Coinciding with Jackson's stay in the country, the Venezuelan National Assembly declared a special session to commemorate Dr. King's "I Have A Dream" speech. National Assembly member Nohelí Pocaterra, an indigenous woman of Wayuú descent, addressed parliament in her native language and later in Spanish. Pocaterra compared Chávez's struggle for equality in Venezuela with Dr. King's civil rights work. Speaking later at the National Assembly, Jackson discussed the role of Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights struggle. Jackson praised Venezuela for making slavery illegal prior to the United States. "You in Venezuela ended the system of slavery in 1854," he remarked. At the end of his speech Jackson was cheered with thunderous applause from Venezuelan lawmakers.


The Future of Hemispheric Racial Politics


Chávez's international diplomacy and his warm ties with prominent African Americans will surely enrage the Bush White House yet further. Just at the time when Bush's popularity is flagging over the war in Iraq and botched relief efforts at home, Chávez has emerged as the most charismatic South American leader in recent times. For Bush, who tried and failed to dislodge Chávez in 2002, it is hardly a promising picture. Meanwhile, Chávez has inspired not only oppressed minorities within his own country but also blacks living outside Venezuela. "Advanced by individuals such as President Chávez," Fletcher remarks, "the recognition of the on-going reality of racism, and the struggles against it by the African descendant and Indigenous populations, could have a momentous impact on the politics and future of Latin America, let alone the entire Western Hemisphere."

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Bird Flu and Bush

As recent events have clearly shown, nature can have a devastating political impact for political leaders. According to a Wall Street Journal poll, just prior to Hurricane Katrina Bush's disapproval rating stood at 55%, with 40% approving of the president and 5% unsure. In the aftermath however, his numbers, according to CBS, slipped yet further: only 38% approved of his overall job performance. While it's unclear what the long term political impact of Hurricane Katrina may be, Americans lost confidence in their political leadership. According to CBS polling data taken after Hurricane Katrina, 34% said they didn't have much confidence in government to respond to natural disasters, and a full 15% said they had no confidence at all. Only 19% said they had a great deal of confidence in the authorities, a truly staggering statistic.


Hurricane Katrina may be just the tip of the iceberg, however. If a severe outbreak of Asian bird flu hits the U.S., Bush's presidency could be severely damaged or even ruined. What is the disease and how is it spread? Avian influenza, also known as bird flu, is caused by the H5N1 virus native to wild water birds. Migratory ducks, geese and herons carry the influenza, and as they migrate they may pass the virus on to domesticated birds such as chickens. H5N1 virus has already devastated bird flocks throughout Asia. What is more, in the last six years the virus has mutated and can now infect and kill humans; as of September 58 people have died. According to the PBS show Wide Angle, there is already some evidence that the virus has spread via human-to-human contact. The antiviral drug Tamiflu has been proven effective against H5N1 in lab testing. Tamiflu, and another drug, Relenza, could be effective against avian influenza if they are taken within two days of symptoms becoming apparent. But, no one really knows if they will work. Indeed, most people that have been hospitalized with bird fly have died. Some had already been treated with anti viral drugs. According to the World Health Organization, a pandemic is imminent but no one knows when it might occur.


A Dire Forecast


In the last major avian flu epidemic in 1918, 50 million people died around the world within 18 months. An outbreak of H5N1 could prove equally if not more devastating: worldwide, the World Health Organization is warning that the virus could result in between 50 and 100 million deaths. The Centers For Disease Control report that even a "medium-level epidemic" could result in the deaths of up to 207,000 Americans, hospitalize 734,000, and sicken approximately one third of the U.S. population. Writing in Foreign Affairs however, Laurie Garrett estimates that such a figure is quite conservative. She writes that in the worse case scenario, in which the authorities are unable to produce an effective vaccine fast enough and the virus withstands anti-flu drugs, avian flu could kill up to 16 million people. In the event of an outbreak, some countries might seek to impose ineffectual quarantines or close borders and airports. In that event, trade and travel would be disrupted; stock markets would be dealt a severe blow. With record high levels of worker absenteeism, economic productivity would be dealt a severe blow. What is more, direct medical costs could top $166 billion in the U.S, not including the costs of vaccination.


America's Lack of Preparedness


Given the potential magnitude of such a disaster, why haven't the authorities taken more precautions? The first Asian outbreak of the influenza occurred as far back as 1997, so it's not as if bird flu is some kind of new or unheard of threat. Consumer advocate Ralph Nader has warned that "The level of response and resources amount the world's nations is nowhere near the needs for prevention, early surveillance, testing, diagnosis, treatment and the application of modern epidemiological sciences." However, the mainstream media has shirked its responsibility, failing to follow up on Nader's call. Micah Fink, a producer on the recent PBS Wide Angle documentary, "H5N1: Killer Flu," complained that "terrorism and the war in Iraq have dominated much of our foreign coverage and the news hole, never large for international affairs." Though CNN and the likes of weepy reporter Anderson Cooper have devoted a full month of coverage to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the network failed to warn the public in advance of an imminent disaster.


As a result of this media blackout, high public officials have not felt much pressure to address the threat of Asian bird flu. Though Bush recognized the threat of a bio-terrorist attack after the anthrax scare of 2001, federal resources to deal with the threat have been meager. Following the anthrax scare, Congress approved $3.7 billion to strengthen America's public health infrastructure. Two years later, Bush increased funding to the Center For Disease Control's flu program by a whopping 242 percent. Even so, however, such an increase was miniscule: by 2004, the program only amounted to $41.6 million. Bush has also increased flu funding to the National Institute of Health and the Food and Drug Administration, but in total spending has amounted to just $67 million. Bush has spent $80 million stockpiling Tamiflu and other influenza drugs, but currently we only have about 2 million vaccine doses.


Public health officials are worried. In an interview on the PBS show Wide Angle, Anthony Fauci, director of the Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, warned, "what we in the federal government need to do, is we need to work with the pharmaceutical companies and help to incentivize them to turn their attention and their resources to being able to have the capability of what we call a surge capacity. Of being able to make 100 or more million doses if we need it within a period of a few months." Fauci admitted, however, that to produce hundreds of millions of doses this would cost a couple billion dollars. That might sound like a lot of money, but consider that the United States spends $5 billion per month on the war in Iraq and the Department of Homeland Security's budget in 2005 amounted to a full $29 billion. This is a pressing and important issue," says Fink, "and I think we should be doing much more than we are doing now." Fink adds,"most of the federal money in the US these days seems be getting spent on terrorism related issues — which may be very short sighted." Though Bush has taken some superficial measures such as ordering the mandatory quarantine of travelers infected with the virus, fundamentally Asian bird flu has not been a serious political priority for George W. Bush. As with Hurricane Katrina, the president seems to be dealing with the crisis on an ad hoc basis. Having failed to address the problem, he recently declared that the army should be deployed in case of an outbreak of Asian flu.


Political Ramifications


The World Health Organization (WHO) is an agency of the United Nations which is absolutely vital in combating global diseases like bird flu. Since 1947 the WHO has retained a worldwide network that monitors the spread of influenza. Based on the evaluation of WHO scientists, the organization tries to predict which flu strains are likely to spread globally. What is more, the WHO coordinates with pharmaceutical companies so as to speed up vaccine production; oversees laboratories at the global level and arbitrates negotiations over vaccine production. The WHO also plays an important role in that it pushes for greater transparency concerning human and avian flu cases. The WHO isn't the only important UN agency that would help coordinate efforts in the case of an outbreak. The Food and Agriculture Organization or FAO, which collaborates closely with the World Organization for Animal Health, keeps track of flu outbreaks in animals and gives advice to government about culling flocks and herds.


In the event of an actual outbreak, there would no doubt be a rush to point fingers and assign blame. In the high stakes game of Asian bird flu, the Republicans stand to lose. For years, the GOP has clashed with the WHO over such issues as the use of abortion in impoverished areas of the Third World. As the home to the world's larges tobacco company, Philip Morris, the United States has consistently stood in the way of the WHO on the fight against tobacco use. What is more, the U.S. has opposed the movement to make economic anti-HIV drugs available to Third World nations, and rejects findings by the WHO and FAO demonstrating the clear links between chronic disease and diets that are rich in fat and sugar.


More recently, the Republican controlled Congress has been involved in an acrimonious war with the United Nations. In June, the House voted 221 to 184 on H.R. 2745 to cut dues by half to that body if certain reforms are not undertaken. The bill states that the U.S. shall cut off the funds by 2008 unless the Secretary of State certifies that the UN is carrying out operational changes, including stringent budget controls, detailed financial disclosures and creation of an independent oversight office. Finally, the legislation seeks to create a new UN Chief Operating Office. A similar bill is now pending in the Senate. Currently, the United States supplies 22% of the United Nations' annual $2 billion budget. As such, a U.S. cut off could prove devastating. The legislation, coupled with President Bush's appointment of right wing hawk John Bolton as UN envoy seems to signal the Republican desire to kill off the world body.


In the event of an outbreak of Asian bird flu, however, the U.S. will have to coordinate with the United Nations and the WHO. One may easily imagine the calls of public indignation, excoriating the Republicans for their vendetta against the UN and previous unwillingness to collaborate with international bodies concerning important health issues. Certainly, Hurricane Katrina has given the Democrats an opening if they are willing to take shrewd advantage of it. They might claim that the Republicans have no better prepared us for an outbreak of Asian bird flu than the arrival of hurricanes in the Gulf. If there is enough noise on the Hill, perhaps the media too will see the urgency in drawing attention to this vital threat before it strikes.

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